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From bullet maker to defence tech giant
Sun, Dec 30, 2007
The Straits Times
SINGAPORE Technologies Engineering had a somewhat unfortunate beginning.

The year was 1967, two years after Singapore became independent. The new nation had set up Chartered Industries of Singapore (CIS), the forerunner of ST Engineering, to make bullets for its fledgling army.

A young Defence Ministry officer loaded 20 rounds into an AR-15 rifle magazine to test-fire the first batch of 5.56mm bullets.

The first three shots went well but when the fourth round exploded, it sent bits of the bullet casing into the left arm of the young officer. There had been too much propellant.

Luckily, he was not seriously injured. That young officer is now Mindef's chief defence scientist, Professor Lui Pao Chuen.

So when he says that CIS 'nearly killed themselves' in the early days of production, he is not exaggerating. After the accident, all new ammunition would be tested with the weapon secured on a stand and fired remotely.

Forty years on, the humble bullet factory sitting on a 10ha site at 249 Jalan Boon Lay has grown into a global giant. The group employs more than 18,000 workers in about 100 companies. It has offices and factories in all continents except Antarctica and chalked up sales of $4.49 billion last year.

Its products include assault rifles and machine guns, armoured vehicles, stealth warships, road-paving machines and vehicle-tracking gadgets.

Contrast this to CIS' earliest days, when the company employed just 10 workers and its product range was a grand total of one - those 5.56mm bullets.

But the importance of the bullets should not be underestimated. The then minister for the interior and defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, reasoned that Singapore should make bullets for its own army to ensure self-sufficiency. Besides, imported ammunition would be expensive.

But bullet production was not as straightforward as it seemed. Singapore's humid weather threatened to ruin ammunition production.

To solve the problem, the bullets were manufactured in refrigerated rooms with dehumidification units to protect the gunpowder from humidity.

Match-grade bullets

CIS learnt from the botched firing trial and went on to make such good bullets that the US gun manufacturer, Colt Industries, declared the bullets 'match grade'.

This meant its bullets were as good as handmade bullets used in firing competitions.

Match-grade bullets have their grains of gunpowder measured individually to ensure each bullet has the same amount of propellant.

They are thus more accurate than mass-produced bullets where minute differences in propellant can result in inaccurate firing results.

Prof Lui recalls proudly: 'The precision of the CIS-made rounds was so high that Colt bought CIS ammunition for their M-16 demonstrations around the world.'

Colt later gave CIS the licence to make M-16 assault rifles for national servicemen.

Ever the practical man, Dr Goh also got CIS to branch into minting coins in 1968.

Though the two products make strange bedfellows, he said: 'There are many practical advantages in this combination for both share common facilities, for instance, in security arrangements, in metallurgy and in the tool and die workshop.'

He also spearheaded the formation of a slew of defence-oriented companies to support the air, naval and land forces.

The Government registered a company called Sheng-Li Holding to be the 'umbrella' holding company for these defence companies.

Change of names

DR GOH himself picked the name Sheng-Li, which means 'victory' in Chinese.

Singapore's expertise and production capabilities in defence grew as the military added more sophisticated war machines to its arsenal.

In 1989, the stable of companies under Sheng-Li embraced the Singapore Technologies brand name and logo to forge a common corporate identity.

CIS was absorbed under ST Automotive, which made guns, trucks and tanks. It was later renamed ST Kinetics.

Whether it was under the old or new name, the companies ventured beyond national defence to take on commercial work. They also ventured overseas.

For instance, skills developed for repairing, upgrading and modifying the Republic of Singapore Air Force warplanes set the scene for ST Aerospace's move into performing such work on airliners.

Mr Ho Yuen Sang, ST Aerospace's deputy president, credits its former president, Mr Quek Poh Huat, for taking on commercial work.

'Today, if we were not doing commercial work, a significant part of our business would not be there.

'That was our first strategic decision,' he said. 'The next was the decision to go overseas.'

That strategy paid off handsomely.

Last year, Overhaul & Maintenance magazine ranked ST Aerospace as the world's top provider of maintenance, repair and overhaul services. Such work keeps the world's airliners flying.

In a similar vein, the hush-hush work pioneered by ST Electronics to maintain Singapore Armed Forces equipment used to command, control and communicate with military units saw it amass skills sought after by the commercial sector, such as the development of computer software for 'intelligent buildings' that controlled features such as power, water and security.

Leveraging on experience in integrating the building information system at Changi Airport in 1981, ST Electronics won projects for installing electronic brains in Singapore skyscrapers such as Raffles City, as well as China's tallest building, the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai.

Such skills came to the fore during the Sars crisis in 2003. Working with the Defence Science and Technology Agency, ST Electronics developed a portable fever scanner that could screen large numbers of people for signs of fever - an early indication of Sars infection.

Time magazine picked it as one of the 'coolest' inventions of 2003.

Ten years ago, the defence industries marked their 30th year with the merging of ST Aerospace, ST Electronics, ST Kinetics and ST Marine into ST Engineering.

Today, ST Engineering is more than a weapons company. Commercial services such as airliner maintenance work and ship repairs account for about 70 per cent of the group's sales. Military-related sales to the SAF and customers abroad account for the remaining 30 per cent.

The group has also chalked up a number of world firsts.

Its battle-proven Ultimax 100 light machinegun, weighing in at 6.8kg with a drum of 100 bullets, is the world's lightest light machine gun - a record that has stood unchallenged for 20 years.

People power

ALTHOUGH ST Engineering has never divulged who its customers are, the distinctive Ultimax 100 has been spotted in newsreels in battle zones from Bosnia to Sri Lanka.

To market the weapon, CIS had borrowed from the commercial world and used sex appeal. It hired slim women in figure-hugging jumpsuits to show how easy it was to fire the weapon accurately.

The company reckons that it is the world's biggest producer of 40mm ammunition for automatic grenade launchers - an infantry weapon that spews baseball-size grenades at a rate of up to 500 per minute, up to a distance of 2.2km.

For all the heavy hardware, ST Engineering's president and chief executive officer Tan Pheng Hock is mindful of the important role that software played in the group's achievements.

'It is imperative that as we globalise and expand, we continue to harness people power. The last 40 years are years of achievements created and led by people,' he said.

dboey@sph.com.sg

Copies of ST Engineering's 40th anniversary book can be found at libraries. The book is not for sale.

World record

Its battle-proven Ultimax 100 light machinegun, weighing in at 6.8kg with a drum of 100 bullets, is the world's lightest light machine gun - a record that has stood unchallenged for 20 years.

 

 
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